- Coronavirus cases have been skyrocketing in recent weeks, and at least part of the increase can be attributed to restaurants reopening their dining rooms.
- On Friday, Texas became the first state to partially reverse its reopening, and more shutdowns are on the horizon as cases continue to rise.
- These shutdowns are necessary for public safety reasons, but will also spell disaster for beleaguered restaurants that already had the cards stacked against them.
- The recent spike in coronavirus cases and impending shutdowns are proof that reopening businesses won’t actually save businesses.
- To restaurants need decisive intervention from the government, including no-strings-attached grant funding and rent relief.
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When Georgia Governor Brian Kemp announced he’d allow restaurants to reopen on April 27, over 120 Atlanta restaurant owners united to commit to remaining closed, saying it was far too soon to reopen.
Now, Georgia is one of many states experiencing a spike in coronavirus cases, in what the WHO describes as a consequence of reopening businesses and public spaces too early. On Friday, Texas Governor Greg Abbott ordered all bars to close temporarily, reversing his previous decision to allow already-open businesses to stay open while pausing further reopenings. Florida, Arizona, and California are all among the states that have seen unprecedented positive test rates since reopening.
And on Friday, a Chase analyst released a chart showing the correlation between restaurant spending and new cases. The analyst, Jesse Edgerton, compared the spending data from 30 million Chase credit and debit cardholders against a coronavirus case tracker from John Hopkins University and found that restaurant spending was the strongest predictor of a rise in infections.
Of course, restaurants aren’t solely responsible for the spike in COVID cases – other stores, venues, and recreational spaces also factor into the recent surges. And the National Restaurant Association reached out after this article was first published to emphasise that restaurants and their staff are experienced at working under strict safety rules. “Restaurants have historically operated with highly regulated safety protocols based on the FDA’s Food Code and now have taken new steps to meet social distancing guidelines required by state and federal officials,” a spokesperson for the association wrote.
Still, in the face of mounting evidence from Chase and from states facing surging infection rates, the stance that reopening restaurants and most businesses is safe is becoming increasingly untenable. And it’s becoming more and more clear that not only is prematurely reopening restaurants unsafe, it’s bad for business.
Some argue that at least restaurants were able to make a profit by reopening, saving jobs and the economy. Broadly speaking, that hasn’t been true. Safety guidelines and capacity limits have made it nigh-impossible for sit-down restaurants to operate profitably.
When local governments inevitably wrangle restrictions back into place, the onus of dealing with that whiplash will fall on the shoulders of small business owners. Staying open as case numbers skyrocket puts restaurant workers and customers at risk. But the financial consequences of closing back down are yet another unknown for restaurant owners. Congress has been dragging its feet on passing another stimulus package, and restaurant owners have no idea what kind of support they will or won’t receive from the government if they’re forced to close again.
A second round of closures will also toss supply chains, carefully rebuilt after months of turmoil, into further uncertainty. It will have a devastating secondary effect on restaurant suppliers, who must continually adjust to massive fluctuations in demand much faster than they’re able to. An example of this phenomenon is the cheese supply chain. Restaurant owners are now facing high prices and shortages of cheese due to closures that forced suppliers to sell a glut of cheese abroad. The uncertainty of the market has made cheese producers reluctant to increase production to meet demand. A series of reopenings and re-closures would only make the problem worse.
So how did we get here?
We can’t blame restaurants for wanting to survive. We also can’t blame restaurants for not being able to operate both safely and profitably during a pandemic. However, we can admit that broadly, our federal and local governments made the wrong choice to reopen businesses.
An impending second wave of closures makes it crystal clear that the government needs to take sweeping and decisive action to keep the restaurant industry from near-total collapse. No-strings-attached grant funding is a vital first step, and the RESTAURANTS Act introduced by Oregon Representative Earl Blumenauer would provide that. However, it is time for local governments to look into supporting their restaurants in other ways, whether by helping simplify the unemployment and rehiring process or considering rent relief for closed businesses.
What the government chooses to do now will decide just how many restaurants will close because of the pandemic. Will it be 85% of independent restaurants, as the Independent Restaurant Coalition predicts, or will it be fewer? It’s up to us.